It may begin as a feeling of unease that overtakes you as you cautiously make your way inside a long-abandoned house.  The air is thick; musty and stale.  Yet somehow it is laced with the underlying scent  of a burning fire… even though the cold crumbling fireplace hosted its last fire long ago.
As your eyes adjust, you begin to notice the stillness. There is absolutely no noise.  In fact, the silence is so oppressive, it presses in on your eardrums like the weight of an ocean… seeking to snuff out the sound of anything that should trespass upon it.  You get the distinct feeling it would like to quiet even the uneven sound of your shallow breaths… and then move on to silence the thump of your increasingly racing heartbeat.

The temperature of the air around you begins to drop.  Cold descends upon you like a cloak, wrapping around you, closing in tight.  Goosebumps rise on your skin, not only in response to the sudden chill, but also as a reaction to the unmistakable threat that you sense is stalking you.

Haunted House

Out of the corner of your eye you perceive a slight movement.  You whip your head in that direction, but see nothing.  Then you sense, more than see, movement behind you.  You turn again, but initially cannot distinguish anything to confirm your instincts.  But as you peer into the darkness more intently, the shadows seem to separate within themselves.  Hues of blackness become apparent, and the deepest darkest shades of black are in motion.  In darkened corners, veils of impenetrable blackness swirl and swarm, and churn in agitation.

While your mind struggles to make sense of what you are seeing, the silence is finally broken.  Inches from your ear, an unseen entity rasps, “GET OUT!”

You run.  You don’t look back.  Every inch of you is driven by fear, and propelled by the basic instinct of survival.  You clear the house and continue running, stumbling, scrabbling through surrounding woods until the sounds of nature and night confirm that you’ve left the threat far behind you.

You know you’ve just experienced something beyond explanation.  But every one of your screaming senses, as well as your pounding heart, confirm it was real.  But will anyone believe you?  Is there any way to prove that what you’ve seen, heard, felt… is really real?

Hunting for ghosts with the help of science

How can science help confirm such phenomenon?  For centuries, ghost hunters have striven to find a means to provide the empirical proof needed to verify what so many have experienced.  Certainly in this day-and-age of high-definition digital imagining, sensitive audio equipment, and thermal and electromagnetic measurement devices; proof of supernatural happenings should be easy to prove… or at least, disprove.

But what kind of devices would you actually find on the tool belt of a modern day ghost hunter?  Well don’t look to Dr. Peter Venkman and his colleagues for advice. 

The tools and methods used by the Ghostbusters, although highly entertaining, wouldn’t be much use on an actual ghost hunt.  According to Vince Wilson, author of Ghost Tech, the Essential Guide to Paranormal Investigation Equipment, “If a real ghost hunter were to wear a proton pack -- which in the movie contained a particle accelerator -- they would develop several forms of cancer.  And, it would be the size of a tractor-trailer.”

However, one of the “little toys” used in the film actually exists.  When Dr. Venkman checks out Dana -- err, Dana’s apartment -- after the “frying egg on the countertop” phenomenon, he uses a little sniffing device to detect ghost vapor trails.  That device, the “Sniffer 300,” is manufactured by Bacharach/United Technologies.  But it’s not actually designed for paranormal investigations.  According to the manufacturer, "The Sniffer 300 Series gas indicators are lightweight, portable instruments designed for intermittent measurements of combustible gas and oxygen deficiency.”  Sorry Peter, you’ll never find any ghosts that way.

Ghostbusters Sniffer

What are the tools of the trade of real ghost hunters?  In most cases, they tend to be fairly standard pieces of equipment… just put to use in exceptional environments.

Electromagnetic Field Detector (EMF)

EMF Ghost MeterThe Electromagnetic Field Detector, is the modern day ghost researcher's tracking device. With this instrument it is possible to locate and track energy sources.   It will detect fluctuations in electromagnetic fields and low strength moving EMF fields that have no source.  It is a common theory that spirits disrupt this field in such a way that you can tell one is present by higher than normal readings with this meter.  Before using the EMF as a ghost research tool on an investigation be sure to walk around the area and take initial readings around energy sources such as light poles or electrical outlets to be sure of the readings you receive while scanning the area during the investigation.  Most units when purchased come with a manual describing most household and major appliances and their corresponding electromagnetic reading.   When using the EMF as a tracking device look for fluctuations of 2.0 to 7.0, this usually indicates spirit presence.  Anything higher or lower is normally has a natural source.

Digital sound recorder and audio software

Recorders or digital voice recorders are one of the most important pieces of equipment for a modern investigator.  Not only are they used for more mundane tasks such as taking notes and interviews; but they are also critical to capture electronic voice phenomena (EVP).

Electronic voice phenomenon is the alleged communication by spirits through tape recorders and other electronic devices. Interest in EVP apparently began in the1920s. An interviewer from Scientific American asked Thomas Edison about the possibility of contacting the dead. Edison, a man of no strong religious views, said,

“… nobody knows whether our personalities pass on to another existence or sphere but it is possible to construct an apparatus which will be so delicate that if there are personalities in another existence or sphere who wish to get in touch with us in this existence or sphere, this apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity to express themselves than the tilting tables and raps and ouija boards and mediums and the other crude methods now purported to be the only means of communication.” *

There is no evidence, however, that Edison ever designed or tried to construct such a device. And he probably did not foresee spirits communicating with our tape recorders and television sets.

Digital Camera and/or video camera (with infrared technology)

Digital cameras are standard tools for ghost researchers. They enable investigators to instantly see if they have positive photos, and with infrared technology they can record in complete darkness and capture beyond what the human eye can see. Video can provide constant visual and audio surveillance for review and observation.  Phenomena can be documented in its entirety -- showing the length of time the phenomena occurs, what is happening, the conditions surrounding the phenomena, and potentially even the cause of the phenomena.

Ghostly orbs are the most photographed anomalies caught on film by ghost hunters.  Orbs are believed (by many) to be ghosts in the form of balls of light. They can be completely transparent or display themselves in a bright solid form. The theory is that ghosts prefer the form of an Orb (ball of light) because it takes less energy.

Caution must be exercised however when reviewing film that display orbs.  Blurred dust, rain, or snow can often times appear as orbs when they are in front of the focal point of a camera.  Things to look for in a photograph that may merit it as potentially anomalous or "paranormal" is clear movement of the orb.  Also, if an orb appears to be overlapped by another in-focus object in the picture, that is another indicator that the orb is not out-of-focus dust.  If the dust appears behind something in-focus, it is clearly beyond the focal point of the camera and would not therefore be evidence of a dust particle directly in front of the camera.

Dust Particle Orbs
Out-of- focus dust particles that appear as "orbs"

ghostly orb

Suspected paranormal activity - orb with clear direction change and meaningful movement


Thermometers are often used during an investigation as another means to detect paranormal activity. Rapid temperature drop of 10 degrees of more could indicate spirit presence.   Infrared non-contact thermometers react in less than a second to a temperature drop, and can be used to scan a large area quickly.

Thermal-vision camera

Paranormal investigators with deep pockets may also employ infrared thermal vision cameras in their research, though these devices can cost upwards of $10,000. Infrared thermal vision cameras capture video pictures in which each pixel is, in effect, a tiny thermometer.  This can help locate “cold spots” in rooms that are suspected of being haunted, as well as capture a thermal image of anyone (or anything) that crosses in the path of the camera.

Ghostbusters Keymaster thermal image
Louis Tully… or Vinz Clortho, Keymaster of Gozer?  The thermal-vision camera never lies.

Armed with all of this high-tech equipment, surely we can prove the existence of ghosts, haunted houses, and paranormal activity... right?

Not necessarily.

As much evidence that is gathered in support of such hauntings, there seems to be just as many theories that can be used to explain it away.  EMF readings are nothing more than interference caused by nearby power sources; electronic voice phenomena is simple radio interference; cold spots are the result of poor insulation; and floating orbs are light reflecting off the camera lens.  So the certainty of science still leaves a lot of uncertainty in this particular area.

But despite the uncertainty, there are are a few places on that have such a history of unexplained "paranormal" activity, that even the U.S. Government has classified them as haunted.  San Diego's Whaley House is listed by the United States Department of Commerce as an authentic haunted house.  Built on the site of early San Diego's public gallows, and scene of numerous deaths and angry confrontations, the Whaley House is home to several ghosts and unexplained phenomena.  According to the Travel Channel's America's Most Haunted, the house is the number one most haunted house in the United States.

The Whaley House

The Whaley House in San Diego was originally built on the execution grounds of James Robinson, nicknamed Yankee Jim. In 1852, Yankee Jim was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to death by hanging. The hangman set the noose improperly, allowing Jim's feet to graze the ground, prolonging the hanging process. In 1856, Thomas Whaley bought the land where Yankee Jim had been killed and built a house for his own family. According to the youngest Whaley daughter, she could hear the sound of boots clomping through the house and suspected it to be the ghost of Yankee Jim.

In 1869 the city leased a room in the house as a courthouse. A heavy iron chain in the room has been seen to swing on its own, and many people report feeling uneasy there. Whaley House Courtroom GhostHeavy footsteps have long been heard upstairs, above this room.  In 1871, with Thomas Whaley out of town, an angry mob held wife Anna Whaley at gunpoint on the 9th step of these stairs while court records were taken. Visitors to the house report feeling a chill in the air as they step there. The ghost of Thomas Whaley has been seen on that second floor landing, dressed in a black frock coat and wide-brimmed hat.

Today, the Whaley House is a registered historic site and museum. Visitors and employees have reported seeing or hearing the ghosts of former owners Thomas and Anna Whaley. Thomas' ghost usually resides near the landing at the top of the staircase, while Anna's stays downstairs or in the garden. Television host Regis Philbin is among those who claimed to have seen Mrs. Whaley's ghost.

The archway between the parlor and music room is located when Yankee Jim Robinson was hung in 1852, before the house was built. People report feeling a constriction in the throat when standing there.  From the music room can be head songs from the turn of the century, and laughter. The smell of a cigar and the fragrance of perfume which quickly vanished have been reported.  In the music room is a lamp that must be a favorite of one of the ghosts.  Often, one or two of the crystals have been seen swinging, while all the others have remained motionless.

Sometimes at night a figure can be seen in the upstairs windows, long after everyone has left the building for the day.  The ground floor windows have been sealed shut to keep them from opening by themselvesImage of a Ghostly Face in the Whaley House window after hours late at night, setting off the alarm system.  Curtains in the bedrooms have often been reported to billow and move, even though the windows are sealed shut. Beds and pillows have shown the impressions of someone having laid there, even though glass panels in the doorways make it impossible for visitors to actually enter the rooms.

There are several mirrors in the house. At sometime or another, someone has reported seeing a face or partial figure in everyone of them.

Can science prove the Whaley House is haunted?  Maybe not.  But many people are certain of it just the same.  If you want to experience it for yourself and draw your own conclusions, make a trip to San Diego and take a tour.

If you'd like to try out your ghost sleuthing skills somewhere closer by, has an index of hundreds of haunted places worldwide.  It's easy to check for locations of documented paranormal activity in cities and neighborhoods near you.  But be sure to abide by the most important rule of ghost hunting -- bring a friend.

Want to perform a investigation somewhere really, really close by... like your couch?  In the safety of your own home, securely snuggled under a blanket with nothing scarier than your laptop beside you; you can perform a paranormal investigation using several ghost hunting gadgets.  Just check out The History Channel's Hidden Spirits game.  You can go through all of the steps of leaving recording devices throughout the rooms of a haunted hotel, and then come back later to check what paranormal activity has been captured.  It's actually quite entertaining.  And if it ever gets too intense, you can always shut your laptop and just throw Ghostbusters in the DVD player.  Let them do all the work, while you investigate nothing further than whether you still have any potato chips hidden somewhere in the back of the pantry.

Happy Hunting!